On New Year’s Eve, 2012, Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk drilling platform ran aground off a southern Alaskan island called Sitkalidak. Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard released a 152-page report dissecting the incident in minute detail and squarely pinning the blame on the oil company and its contractors.
The company had used the Kulluk – a 266-foot wide, conical-hulled drilling vessel completed in 1983 – for exploratory drilling off Alaska’s north coast that fall, then hitched it to a specialized ship called the Aiviq and sent it on Dec. 21 towards a Seattle shipyard for the winter. On the 1,700-mile journey along the coast from Captain’s Bay in the Aleutians, the two vessels were beset by a brutal, multi-day storm in the Gulf of Alaska, with up to 50-knot winds and 25-foot seas. On the 27th, the towline broke loose, and shortly after the crew managed to hook up an emergency line, the Aiviq’s engines failed.
A Coast Guard vessel soon arrived and tried to tow the Aiviq, still attached to the Kulluk, but its line snapped too. A second ship attempted to tow the Kulluk side-by-side with the Aiviq, during which the Coast Guard managed to helicopter evacuate the Kulluk’s 18 crewmembers, but then both towlines snapped. A tugboat then managed to establish an emergency towline on the 30th, allowing the Aiviq to get a line back on the rig on the 31st, only to lose it yet again. As the seas’ heaving worsened, the Coast Guard ordered the tugboat to cut the rig loose for the safety of its crew.
Though no one was hurt, and the Kulluk’s 139,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lubrication oil and hydraulic fluid stayed securely onboard, the incident added credence to environmentalist contentions that neither industry, nor the federal government, is ready for the risks of developing oil reserves beneath the harsh Arctic Ocean farther north.
"The most significant factor (contributing to the accident) was the decision to attempt the voyage during the winter in the unique and challenging operating environment of Alaska," wrote Coast Guard Seventeenth District Commander Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, “demonstrating a lack of respect” for the challenging environment with an “inadequate determination of risk” and “ineffective risk management.” Worse, the company made the decision to move the rig to Seattle in part to avoid a multi-million dollar state tax bill, which would have been assessed Jan. 1 had it stayed in Alaskan waters.